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Inclusion: How can schools give every learner a fair chance?

Pre-Primary pupils of Alkhair Royal School learn how to communicate on an opening day. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Every child has a right to education regardless of economic class, personal challenges, academic abilities, or any other peculiarity. Every child needs a supportive learning environment that encourages academic achievement, intellectual confidence and personal growth.

In education parlance, this concept is referred to as inclusion. Inclusive learning provides all students with access to flexible learning choices and effective paths for achieving educational goals in spaces where they experience a sense of belonging. In an inclusive education environment, all children, regardless of abilities or challenges, learn together in the same age-appropriate classroom. It is based on the understanding that all children and families are valued equally and deserve access to the same opportunities. Inclusive educational practice provides opportunities for all young people to learn together by removing learning barriers. It also addresses the issues that concern all individuals who are vulnerable to exclusion from education.

One of the most important principles of inclusive education is that no two learners are alike, and so inclusive schools place great importance on creating opportunities for students to learn and be assessed in a variety of ways.

How can schools foster inclusion?

Excellence in teaching and learning - Ensure that the educators have the proper training, flexibility and enough resources to teach students with diverse needs and learning styles. Teachers must also establish and implement more effective instructional practices.

Promote A Positive Learning Climate - A positive climate can affect students’ learning and engagement in a good way. It is helpful to provide a welcoming atmosphere to all students regardless of their ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds or educational preparedness. As teachers build a personal connection with their students, it can increase class participation and enthusiasm. Having a supportive environment motivates students to perform better.

Embrace Students’ Diversity - It is essential to value and embrace diversity in ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, backgrounds and even academic readiness. Failing to do so can negatively affect a student’s progress. Therefore, everyone must develop cultural competence and sensitivity to promote inclusion in school.

Encourage Student Interactions - Students would more likely persist if they feel academically and socially connected to their school. To support the institution’s student engagement efforts, teachers and staff should provide opportunities for students to meet and get to know each other better. By letting the students have thoughtful interactions and conversations with people from different backgrounds and life experiences, it makes them more aware of their environment.

 Inclusive Education Strategies

To introduce an inclusive education environment into your classroom means challenging and upsetting the status quo, removing curriculum barriers and presenting educational goals in interesting ways to engage all learners and serve all students equitably. There are four important strategies for educators to consider when designing an inclusive classroom.

Use universal design principles

Universal Design Principles (UDP) is a set of principles that were born from the desire to offer every student an equal opportunity to learn, based on the idea that every person has their own unique and individual learning preference. According to UDP, there are three primary brain networks that are responsible for how a person learns: the recognition network, the strategic network and the affective network. The three main principles of UDP — Representation (the what of learning), Action and Expression (the how of learning), Engagement (the why of learning) — were formed based on these three brain networks. Understanding the foundation of UDP — the principles and brain networks — is imperative for teachers who wish to implement UDP in the classroom.

Use a variety of instructional formats

The first principle of universal design theory is the “what” of learning. It says to use “multiple means of representation.” While some students are visual learners, others may grasp information better when it is presented through text or when it is spoken orally or taught through kinaesthetic learning. Some students do best with a combination of the above. While these differentiated teaching methods may support the needs of students with disabilities, they also offer diversity of instruction to the entire classroom, giving each and every student an opportunity to learn in the way they do best.

Similarly, using different mediums to present information and engage students is important in inclusive classrooms. Remember that principle two of universal design theory calls for utilising “multiple means of action and expression.” Some students may find that their best outlet and means of expression comes through writing, while others may prefer to give an oral presentation, act out a play or create a piece of art. Each student is different and should be given the opportunity to express their knowledge through the methods that work best for them. Additionally, teachers can use a diversity of materials and mediums to engage students. Examples of mediums could include theatre, art, video and computer software in addition to the traditional mediums of lecture and text. Through using varied teaching techniques and mediums, teachers can increase the engagement of their entire class, not just the students who respond to a particular style of learning and expression.

Know your students’ Individual education plans (IEPs)

To create an equitable learning environment for everyone, it is important to familiarise yourself with students’ IEP. If you have a student with an IEP plan, you are legally required to make any necessary accommodations as outlined in the IEP. You can work with the school counsellor or teaching specialists to better understand the student’s specific needs. Much like the concept of inclusive learning, IEPs were designed to ensure that students with disabilities are allowed to learn in a regular classroom environment, while still being provided with services, educational aids or accommodations they may require. Students with an IEP may require additional educational services outside of the regular classroom. These services are typically provided and monitored by additional support staff (like counsellors and mentors).

Develop a behaviour management plan

Disruptive classroom behaviour can affect not just the teacher, but the other students in the classroom as well. Developing a behaviour management plan can help you prepare for the inevitable moment a student or students exhibit disruptive behaviours — with the understanding that some behaviours are of much less consequence than others (talking out of turn vs. being defiant or aggressive). The behaviour plan should be shared with parents and students, so that everyone is aware of the expectations and consequences should those expectations not be met. The most effective plans typically involve a great deal of positive reinforcement and a clear understanding of the expectations. There are several different types of behaviour management plans you can implement depending on the needs of your classroom, including a whole group plan, a small group plan, an individual plan or an individual plan designed for particularly challenging students.

How is it done in other jurisdictions and which lessons can we pick?

Unique to Dwight School Seoul in South Korea, is the Quest Programme, identifying each student’s learning styles and capabilities in order to provide a supportive environment for targeted study tailored to maximize academic potential and enhance the skills of gifted students. Delivered at the helm of innovation and technology by experienced and respected professionals, the Quest Programme falls in line with the school’s ambition to provide personalized learning, on top of a diverse community and a unique, global vision. As a culturally-rich community that represents more than 38 nationalities, the school undoubtedly reflects and promotes the very essence of education inclusion. Here, students have access to the guidance they need to mould their dreams into reality, with a Learn-by-Doing approach that gives students the power to design a fulfilling and thriving future. In a hyperconnected world, Dwight’s inclusive atmosphere gives students the foundational skills needed to succeed in 21st century.

The Hokkaido International School (HIS) in Japan wholeheartedly believes that education should represent so much more than just books. Here, the process of learning is making and applying connections between knowledge, skills and understandings through inquiry-based, collaborative and experiential instruction. From the start of the Early Years multi-age programme, children learn and explore through a series of activities designed to develop their confidence, character and expertise, all while reaping the benefits of studying in an inclusive learning environment. In Elementary and Middle School, HIS follows the International Primary Curriculum and the International Middle Years Curriculum, specifically developed to meet the learning needs of both age groups. The school also hosts numerous academic and fun activities outside the classroom for students, parents and teachers, allowing them to make new friends and interact with students from a diverse range of age groups, countries and cultures.

The education process at the International Community School (ICS) - Singapore, extends well beyond the limits of traditional curriculum; as a Christian school, the ability to foster a ‘Caring Community’ is one of its core values. The goal is to help students learn to respectfully interact across age, cultural and ethnic boundaries. Faculty and staff work alongside each other to harbour an inclusive sense of community on campus, with many opportunities to engage with the greater Singapore as well. Students are encouraged to participate in a broad range of extra-curricular activities, ranging from bowling to taekwondo, ceramics to typography, kickboxing to percussion, and more. Not only do these activities give children the chance to make friends and become an active member of the community, they also uphold the school’s value to provide a holistic education, with highly-qualified staff on-hand to ensure no child is left out. Throughout their ICS experience, students learn to embrace the “servant-leadership” philosophy, and understand the value of investing in others, and are shaped into active community members within ICS, Singapore, and the wider world.

These are lessons we can pick and interpolate to fit our context and realities. But the bottom line for every school, every educator should be; how can each learner get a fair shot at quality education regardless of their economic class, personal challenges, academic abilities, or any other peculiarity?